Private clubs must face a new reality

“Cocooning” very well could be killing private golf clubs.

The term, which was coined by futurist Faith Popcorn and gained currency in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, reflects people’s desire to spend more time with loved ones. It’s a 180-degree turn from the days when men escaped their wives and children and dashed to their clubs for male bonding.

It’s just one of many cultural shifts that define post-baby boom generation behavior and underscores the principal threat confronting private facilities in general: Consumers don’t care for, or at least appreciate less, the same club attributes they once coveted.

Pricey initiation fees that served as status symbols now are seen as poor values. The comforting appeal of club life routine has given way to the promise of adventure in variety. Club formality is no match for relaxed “casual Fridays.”

In addition, the changing attitudes have been compounded by economic pressures that aren’t limited to the current recession.

“This generation prepares to send their children to colleges whose tuition continues to rise, while caring for parents who are living longer and requiring more costly care,” says Jon Last, president of the Sports and Leisure Research Group based in White Plains, N.Y.

Add in other real-world factors such as greater job insecurity, more career mobility and shrinking financial portfolios, and it’s no wonder consumers are hesitant.

“The economic stresses make the decision to join a club less prudent,” Last says. “Those who do join are looking for more varied experiences (and) are also very price sensitive.”

These changes mean a new reality for private clubs, Last says. Among them:

• Old-line clubs that traditionally have not welcomed women and children will struggle to retain members.

• Younger prospective members are less inclined to develop an affinity for a traditional club and are accustomed to switching memberships for better deals.

• A culture of informality calls for fewer galas and formal dining and more fun, family-oriented events.

• Families are more “time-starved,” which means activities need to be shorter and better planned. The immediate value of the experience is paramount.

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